A CAP­TI­VAT­ING JIG­SAW

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

TPro­duced by Screentime for the in­dus­tri­ous and al­ways en­ter­tain­ing Stu­dio, and pro­duced with fund­ing from Fox­tel’s Pro­duc­tion Fund, it’s cen­tred on an un­likely troupe of Shake­spearean wannabes, mostly hard­ened ex-pris­on­ers. It’s di­rected by Deb­bie Cuell, whose cul­tural con­tri­bu­tion as a TV doc­u­men­tary film­maker is awe­some, even if she re­mains largely anony­mous to the pub­lic. And the com­plex three-parter is in­spired by the work of a crim­i­nal turned award-win­ning play­wright, Jim McNeil.

McNeil was ar­rested, tried, con­victed and sen­tenced to 17 years in prison. In Syd­ney’s Par­ra­matta Cor­rec­tional Cen­tre, he joined the Resur­gents De­bat­ing So­ci­ety, a small group of pris­on­ers who would meet in the prison chapel to de­bate prison vis­i­tors, write and paint. In 1970, McNeil wrote his first play, The Choco­late Frog. It was per­formed by pris­on­ers for Satur­day morn­ing vis­i­tors and was re­viewed by this paper’s theatre critic at the time, Katharine Bris­bane. It was the start of a brief cel­e­brated ca­reer that ended sadly in the gut­ter.

I knew him well, hav­ing played him in a Mel­bourne Theatre Com­pany pro­duc­tion of his full-length au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal play, How Does Your Gar­den Grow, in 1974. It was re­hearsed with McNeil and his crony, a bloke with a ne­far­i­ous past — it was easy to feel the chill of his shadow — called Jack Karl­son, aka The Hun, sit­ting in most re­hearsals, peer­ing se­verely at me. McNeil was charm­ing, with a won­der­fully po­etic turn of phrase, and tal­ented, but could turn on the spin of a 5c coin.

The three-part se­ries chal­lenges these ex­cons, plus a cou­ple of guys who have lived hard, des­per­ate to re­ject the “jail­house men­tal­ity” of con­stant in­car­cer­a­tion. They’re all stu­dents at Grant Thomp­son’s reg­u­lar weekly act­ing classes held in Syd­ney’s Kings Cross above a strip HESE days ev­ery­one in tele­vi­sion spends wak­ing nights dream­ing of those piles of gold called TV for­mats, ei­ther new ones or in­ge­nious ways of adapt­ing the al­ready suc­cess­ful ones. Well, cre­ator and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Si­mon Steel has come up with a cracker, an ir­re­sistible piece of in­no­va­tive arts pro­gram­ming called Tak­ing on the Choco­late Frog. club, and Thomp­son re­quires them to re­hearse and stage McNeil’s break­through play. “That’s the worst name I ever heard,” ex­claims one of the ac­tors, the hulk­ing, brood­ing Peter Sam­mak, once, when much younger, a “known” per­son around the Cross. Thomp­son’s got his work cut out from the start.

There’s a re­al­ity el­e­ment to it: Will they be able to do the play? And how many of them just won’t crack be­ing straight for the time it takes to re­hearse it? Some do seem to fall by the way­side, briefly re­turn­ing to jail or hit­ting the drugs again, though the cen­tral cast cer­tainly is a stal­wart lot. As Thomp­son says, “When you look at the heads of some of the guys I teach, you know they’ve been through some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary.”

Cuell, a distin­guished vet­eran of the ob­ser­va­tional doc­u­men­tary, gave us the pas­sion­ate Coun­try Town Res­cue on the ABC a cou­ple of years ago, pro­vid­ing a nice glimpse into a na­tional psy­chol­ogy that still, if only just, prizes the bush as the home of a dis­tinctly Aus­tralian way of life. It was about the way a group of people in cen­tral-western NSW worked to­gether to save a small his­toric town with the won­der­ful name of Trun­dle.

Like that for­mat, Choco­late Frog also stems from the tra­di­tional fly-on-the-wall con­ven­tion, where the film­maker is in­vis­i­ble and events are cap­tured largely as they hap­pen, with lit­tle anal­y­sis or com­ment. The sto­ries are then scripted to pro­pel them at the nec­es­sary rate within the re­quire­ments of the com­pet­i­tive times­lot for which the pro­gram is in­tended. And in this se­ries she clev­erly jux­ta­poses the lay­ers of Steel’s com­plex for­mat. She pitches it some­where be­tween a re­al­ity show (though she’s not keen on that de­scrip­tion), a so­cial ex­per­i­ment, a bi­og­ra­phy, an arts pro­gram, and a con­ven­tional ob­ser­va­tional se­ries.

“At the start I knew there were three main large el­e­ments that we had to weave to­gether into a seam­less nar­ra­tive — that was the big­gest chal­lenge: three strands that weave to­gether and com­ment on and echo each in dif­fer­ent ways,” says Cuell. “There’s the per­sonal sto­ries of the cast; the story of the drama coach tak­ing his ac­tors on their jour­ney to per­form the play; and the third layer is the Jim McNeil bi­og­ra­phy. There was a lot of jig­saw in­volved.”

Un­like most ob­ser­va­tional doco se­ries, this one couldn’t sim­ply be filmed as it un­folded, she says: “We had to re­ally think hard about how to bring those lay­ers to­gether be­fore we had any ma­te­rial. The cast’s backstories were key to the jig­saw be­cause of the par­al­lels be­tween the lives of the cast and the life of Jim McNeil, which gave us a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties to weave in the McNeil nar­ra­tive.”

It’s a lovely no­tion and makes for riv­et­ing TV — a group of hard­ened ex-crims learn­ing to be ac­tors so they can por­tray a group of hard­ened crims in a play writ­ten by an im­pris­oned armed rob­ber 43 years ago. It’s also rather ironic as these re­cidi­vists seek some form of re­demp­tion — a way out of what seems an in­evitable re­turn to prison — through the trans­for­ma­tive skills of those psy­cho­log­i­cal shape-chang­ers.

The irony is that most pro­fes­sional ac­tors see them­selves as pris­on­ers wait­ing for re­lease.

Any Aus­tralian ac­tor will tell you that all too of­ten the life they lead is a joy­less one of small­time heart­break and quiet des­per­a­tion, ru­mour and griev­ance — much of it spent dis­guis­ing their de­pres­sion. And that’s when times are good. The first thing you learn about act­ing is that be­ing able to do it is con­sid­er­ably less im­por­tant than be­ing able to sat­isfy some cast­ing di­rec­tor’s whim, fan­tasy or ex­as­per­ated ex­pec­ta­tion. They learn this too, our real-life for­mer pris­on­ers, as they jos­tle for parts try­ing to im­press the ex­act­ing Thomp­son.

In their very dif­fer­ent ways, they’re all good- hearted souls, and you can’t help but wish them well. And, as the first episode un­folds, you won­der whether they will ever be­come con­vinc­ing ac­tors, even though Thomp­son is ob­vi­ously a fine, em­pa­thetic teacher.

You can eas­ily ap­pre­ci­ate why act­ing is so im­por­tant to these guys, out of jail but im­pris­oned now by eco­nomic, so­cial and eco­nomic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties; the ac­tor’s way does seem al­lur­ing, as the best flaunt a men­tal vir­tu­os­ity and a trans­for­ma­tive ge­nius. There’s more irony in that their art is in mak­ing the false seem gen­uine, the kind of thing con­fi­dence trick­sters get put into prison for.

As the men grap­ple with no­tions of per­for­mance, you can see in pow­er­ful process the way the theatre is still an arena for telling the naked truth, and as that fine critic Roger Lewis said, “a ma­chine for ex­plor­ing psy­chol­ogy’s en­chant­ing slip­per­i­ness”.

There’s a great scene where Sam­mak re­veals that Thomp­son has helped him un­der­stand the im­por­tance of what di­rec­tors call the char­ac­ter’s “thought process”, the way di­a­logue can be bro­ken up to ap­pear more real­is­tic. “So when we talk we re­ally gotta take a breath, and wind back, and think. It’s changed ev­ery­thing; f..k man, ed­u­ca­tion is gold.” The Coen broth­ers couldn’t have said it bet­ter.

Mal­colm Robertson, who di­rected the orig­i­nal Choco­late Frog and the McNeil play I ap­peared in, fea­tures in the se­ries as a men­tor to the ac­tors. “For Jim McNeil still to be pro­duced on stage and on TV 40 years af­ter the first pro­duc­tion of The Choco­late Frog is an in­di­ca­tion of Jim McNeil’s sta­tus as a play­wright,” he says.

Al­though the plays could only have been writ­ten in the late 60s and early 70s, they are em­blem­atic of that time and pos­sess a time­less hu­man­ity that cries out for our so­ci­ety to come to terms with re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. In his pri­vate life, McNeil suc­cess­fully oblit­er­ated what he wrote about in his plays and, in a way, the so­ci­ety (Syd­ney go-get­ters) that ini­tially feted him and re­jected him when he chal­lenged them. “One tragedy doth feed on an­other.” It’s now a TV great story.

Grant Thomp­son with the cast of

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